Food
9:00 am
Wed January 2, 2013

'Dirt Candy': A Visual Veggie Cookbook With A Memoir Mixed In

Originally published on Thu December 27, 2012 9:40 pm

The Ones That Got Away series: There were so many good arts and entertainment stories in 2012 that we couldn't get around to reporting on everything as it was released. So this week, our arts reporters are circling back to look at books, movies, TV shows and trends that we should have paid more attention to.

Amanda Cohen's Dirt Candy is a graphic novel, vegetarian cookbook and memoir. But because it's all of those things, it's also not exactly any of them — so it fell between the cracks.

Cohen's restaurant in New York City's East Village is called Dirt Candy because it's focused entirely on vegetables (which Cohen says are candy from the dirt). Even though the place has become a foodie destination, it's teeny, with just nine tables. The narrow dining area doubles as the prep kitchen before people come for dinner.

There's barely room to breathe as Cohen's helpers slice through heaps of long beans to be served with Moroccan herbs and coconut-poached tofu, and whisk gallons of scallion pancake batter. (That's what I swooned over during a dinner that started with crispy hot jalapeno hush puppies and a meltingly rich cube of portobello mushroom mousse, modulated with a bright truffle pear and fennel compote.)

But Cohen wanted to capture the relentless behind-the-scenes labor that goes into running a restaurant. And she wanted to demystify — maybe even de-romanticize — what goes into opening your own place. There were questions she wanted to answer for people, such as: "How did we build this restaurant?" and "What's it like to work with a contractor and are they always trying to kill you?"

Dirt Candy, A Cookbook: Flavor-Forward Food From the Upstart New York City Vegetarian Restaurant answers those questions with a certain grim humor. And it takes readers through a pocket history of vegetarian eating, breaks down why salads cost $14, evangelizes on behalf of deep-fat frying and shows — with the help of black-and-white drawings — how, for example, to mold her smoked corn dumplings into perfect little half-moons.

Dirt Candy the restaurant had been open for about three years when Cohen decided to write the book — reluctantly. She'd worked in too many kitchens where the chefs became so distracted by their cookbooks they forgot about the food. She had a giant fight about it with her husband, Grady Hendrix, who remembers saying something like: "'You may as well do something idiotic like write a comic book cookbook!' And we both kind of stopped [and said] 'That's it.' "

Hendrix ended up helping Cohen write the cookbook, along with artist Ryan Dunlavey, to create something whimsical and energetic that borrowed elements of American comic books and Japanese manga. One part, about Cohen's ill-fated appearance on the TV show Iron Chef America, is drawn like a training sequence from a kung fu film. Another section, about Cohen's love of a deeply unpopular entree is drawn in the style of a 1950's romance.

Matthew B. Wilson is among the reviewers impressed by this vegetarian cookbook, even though he describes himself as "a guy who loves comics and eats a lot of chicken nuggets." He says this is exactly the kind of project that tests the boundaries of the form he loves, making it more palatable (so to speak) for people who might not be drawn to graphic novels, but are interested in adventurous cooking, vegetarianism or who fantasize about owning a restaurant.

"You know, you hear about how difficult it is to open a restaurant and how restaurants fail within however many months," he observes. The Dirt Candy cookbook, he says, remains true to the essential nature of comics by featuring a lone protagonist facing down adversity: "That's a superhero story."


Recipe: 'Roasted Cauliflower With White Wine Pappardelle And Pine Nut Parmesan'

This was the first pasta dish on the menu at Dirt Candy, and I was really proud of it because a) we had to make it without gas (the restaurant's lines weren't hooked up at that point), and b) it was a really smart deconstruction of traditional Pappardelle With Wild Boar Ragu. Unfortunately, customers didn't feel the same. It remains one of the most divisive dishes ever on the Dirt Candy menu, and I kept it on for longer than I probably should have.

White Wine Pappardelle

2 cups semolina

1 cup denatured wine

1 1/2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1/2 tablespoon salt

--

1) In the bowl of a mixer make a mound of the semolina and then make a well in the mound.

2) Pour wine and oil into the well, and add salt.

3) Mix the dough until fully combined and the dough is smooth.

4) Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and let it rest for 1/2 hour.

5) According to the instructions of your pasta roller, roll out the dough to No. 4 on your machine — it should be sort of thicker.

6) Cut the sheets of pasta into thick strips — 1-inch wide is great, and don't worry about it being uneven. You want this to feel rustic.

NOTE: To denature white wine, heat 2 cups of white wine at 140 degrees for 45 minutes, which will remove the alcohol. It will reduce to about 1 1/4 cups of wine as it cooks.

Tomato Sauce

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 cup white onions

1/4 cup minced garlic

3/4 cup golden raisins

2 tablespoons capers

2 tablespoons cup dried oregano

1/2 tablespoon chili flakes

1 cup tomato paste

4 cups crushed tomatoes

1 tablespoon salt

--

1) Caramelize the onions in a pan with the oil. About 20 minutes.

2) Add garlic and let soften.

3) Stir in oregano and chili flakes.

4) Stir in capers and raisins.

5) Add in tomato paste and crushed tomatoes and bring to a simmer. Let simmer for around 10 minutes.

6) Add salt.

7) If the mixture looks too thick, thin it with water.

Cauliflower

1 head of cauliflower, sliced into florets

1/4 cup olive oil

1 teaspoon salt

--

1) Preheat oven to 375.

2) Toss olive oil, salt and cauliflower together.

3) Roast in tray for 25 minutes, until golden brown.

Pine Nut Parmesan

3/4 cup water

1 1/2 cups pine nuts

3/4 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons nutritional yeast

2 teaspoons lemon juice

--

1) Process everything together in a food processor until the pine nuts are broken down into tiny little pebbles, about 30 seconds.

2) Spread on a silpat and dehydrate in oven for 5-8 hours. To dehydrate, turn your oven as low as it will go (around 200 degrees) and let it preheat at that temperature. Then place the silpat inside on a baking sheet. After about 30 minutes, bring it back up to 200 degrees, then turn it off again for 30 minutes. Repeat. For 8 hours. Try not to kill yourself.

3) Now you'll have a large flat wafer of dehydrated pine nuts. Break it into shards for plating.

To Serve

1/4 cup chopped parsley

1) Heat tomato sauce to a simmer in a large pan.

2) In a pot of boiling water cook about 32 strands of pasta for 1 minute, then remove with tongs.

3) Add pasta to tomato sauce and cook for about 30 seconds.

4) Salt to taste.

5) Divide pasta and sauce between 4 plates

6) Top with cauliflower and one or two large shards of pine nut parmesan

7) Sprinkle with parsley and serve.


Copyright 2013 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

Finally this hour, we circle back to something we missed earlier this year for our series The Ones That Got Away. Today, NPR's Neda Ulaby takes us to a restaurant in New York City. We're going to meet the people behind a comic book that's also a cookbook, or you could call it a cookbook in the form of a comic. Either way, Neda says, it's delicious.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: I first saw the "Dirt Candy" cookbook in May, and I've been carrying it around ever since. It's a combination of a bunch of things I love: graphic novel, vegetarian cookbook and memoir. But because it's all those things, it's also not exactly any of them. So for me and a lot of other people, it fell between the cracks.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Good afternoon, Dirt Candy. How can I help you?

ULABY: I ended up going to New York to meet Chef Amanda Cohen at her restaurant, Dirt Candy. It's focused entirely on vegetables or, as she calls them, candy from the dirt. Even though the place has become an East Village foodie destination, it's teeny - only nine tables. The dining area doubles as the prep kitchen before people come for dinner.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOD PREP)

ULABY: Cohen's helpers slice through heaps of long beans to be served with Moroccan herbs and coconut poached tofu...

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOD PREP)

ULABY: ...and they whisk gallons of scallion pancake batter. That's what I swooned over during dinner, fried up with crackling pearl onion rings, gentled by Thai basil cream and with hot jalapeno hushpuppies to start.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Unintelligible) I'm going to put this lime juice in the fridge, (unintelligible).

ULABY: It's the relentless behind-the-scenes work Cohen wanted to capture in her book, and she wanted to show the difficulties of opening your own place.

AMANDA COHEN: How did we build this restaurant? What happened? What's it like to work with a contractor, and are they always trying to kill you?

ULABY: Because the "Dirt Candy" cookbook is a memoir and a comic book, you can see, in glorious black and white, Cohen's fights with the contractor and her meltdowns when the produce supplier is late, also pie charts that break down why salads cost $14 - apparently, unemployment insurance is a factor - and drawings that show her techniques - how to mold smoked corn dumplings into perfect little half moons or the right size to chop parsnips for gnocchi.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOD PREP)

ULABY: The book is filled with tips like: vegetables need to cook way more than you think or way less; cook them hot and fast to keep them bright and seal their flavor; or, if you're opening a restaurant, don't wonder if your soul will be crushed, wonder when.

COHEN: It's evil. This restaurant is evil. I love it...

(LAUGHTER)

COHEN: ...but every step of the way, it has turned against us.

ULABY: Us is Cohen and her husband, Grady Hendrix. He helped write the book, and here's his take on the restaurant.

GRADY HENDRIX: This is the giant, expensive baby we never had that wants to kill us, and we wanted to depict that.

ULABY: Dirt Candy, the restaurant, had been open about three years when Cohen decided to write the book reluctantly. She'd worked in too many kitchens where the chefs became so distracted by their cookbooks they forgot about the food. She had a giant fight about it with her husband. He remembers being a jerk and saying something like...

HENDRIX: This is so stupid. You may as well do something idiotic like just write a comic book cookbook or something, and we both sort of stopped, and we're like, huh, that's...

COHEN: That's what we have to do.

ULABY: So they teamed up with a comic book artist, Ryan Dunlavy, to create something whimsical and energetic that borrowed elements of American comic books and Japanese ones.

HENDRIX: Funny animals, giant robots, you know, martial arts.

(SOUNDBITE OF KUNG FU FILM)

ULABY: So one part of "Dirt Candy" is drawn like a training sequence from a kung fu film. That's in a chapter about Cohen's ill-fated appearance on the TV show "Iron Chef America."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "IRON CHEF AMERICA")

MARK DACASCOS: Let the battle begin.

COHEN: I was the first vegetarian chef asked to be on it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "IRON CHEF AMERICA")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: So the challenger says she likes competition and chooses "Iron Chef's" (unintelligible), bravest cook. Let's hope the veggies are with her.

ULABY: The veggies were not with her.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "IRON CHEF AMERICA")

COHEN: It's broccoli ice cream.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Broccoli ice cream. Who could have foreseen this event?

ULABY: Cohen lost. The veggies were against her again for a deeply unpopular entree. It's drawn in the style of a 1950s romance.

COHEN: I was a good girl until I met my match in that plate of roasted cauliflower pappardelle. They all tried to warn me, but I wasn't listening. I was blind that winter because I fell in love with the wrong dish.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "IRON CHEF AMERICA")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Shameless, she's got tomato sauce all over her face, ugh.

ULABY: No one wanted to eat it. Reviewers singled it out as a problem. Still, the cauliflower pappardelle was the entree version of a bad boy she couldn't give up.

COHEN: I knew you were different - the sweetness of your raisins, the subtlety of your roasted cauliflower and your pine nuts. They were dehydrated, rolled into sheets and crumbled, so deconstructed, so sophisticated. You made me feel smarter like a real chef. I love you. I love you.

ULABY: And reviewers love the "Dirt Candy" cookbook. That is the very few who've taken notice of this memoir comic mashup. One expected to hate the vegetables.

MATTHEW B. WILSON: I'm a guy who loves comics and eats a lot of chicken nuggets.

ULABY: Matthew B. Wilson reviewed the "Dirt Candy" cookbook for ComicsAlliance.

WILSON: In the comics community, there's this constant hand wringing - how do we make comics more palatable for wider audiences?

ULABY: This comic, he says, will tickle the palate of adventurous cookbook readers, vegetarians or anyone who's fantasized about owning a restaurant.

WILSON: You know, you hear about how difficult it is to actually open a restaurant and how restaurants fail within however many months of opening, you know, so many of them do.

ULABY: For a cookbook, Wilson says "Dirt Candy" manages to stay true to the essential nature of comics: one person facing adversity.

WILSON: You know, that's a superhero story.

ULABY: Chef Amanda Cohen is never drawn as a superhero in the "Dirt Candy" graphic novel, but the adversity, she says, is very real.

COHEN: I think there's sort of this idea that it's glamorous to be a chef. Especially now on TV, you have all these, you know, reality TV shows with chefs on them, and it makes it seem like this life is awesome and it's so easy and it's fun and it's filled with TV appearances. And actually, this life sucks.

ULABY: Fourteen-hour days, plunging the toilets, bickering with the prep cook.

COHEN: Yeah, you had the onion dish twice.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I know he had the onion and the cabbages a day that he was here.

COHEN: I know, but that was the first day it was on, I thought.

ULABY: Still, Cohen admits this life comes with its own rewards, like convincing vegetable haters to fall in love with her kimchi doughnuts or cauliflower and waffles. After that first cauliflower debacle, she says she was determined to become the vegetarian restaurant with an amazing cauliflower entree.

COHEN: We smoke cauliflower, and we deep fry it and serve on top of waffles with a horseradish cream sauce, and it has this sort of like creamy smoky fried thing going on, and it's been on the menu for a year and a half. People won't let us take it off because they love it so much, and I think it's delicious.

HENDRIX: Cauliflower wins.

COHEN: Cauliflower wins.

ULABY: Maybe the veggies are with chef Amanda Cohen and "Dirt Candy" after all. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.